Google Earth is no doubt an incredible tool, but it’s hard to imagine that it was created for the purpose of solving decades-old cold cases. Yet as one Florida man loads up the software, that’s exactly what he’s about to do. While examining the satellite images, he spots a shape in a body of water. But when he zooms in, a shiver runs down his spine. And after the police eventually fish out the object, they’ll unravel a mystery that has been 22 years in the making.
The incredible tale began in August 2019, when a property expert was scouting out his old Florida neighborhood on Google Earth. Poking around where he used to live, he clicked onto the area behind one of the houses. And then he noticed something totally out of the ordinary: there, submerged in a pond, was what appeared to be a vehicle.
Well, that’s what it looked like to the intrepid digital explorer at least. After all, there was no way to be sure exactly what he was dealing with from just the blurry image on Google Earth. But when the man got in touch with his ex-wife, who reportedly still lived at his old address, she was able to confirm – through a neighbor – that it was indeed a car. The real spine-chilling discovery, however, awaited them inside the vehicle.
As this Florida resident learned, you don’t need a degree in archaeology or a hat and whip to call yourself an explorer these days. Yes, if Indiana Jones were set in the 21st century, it may just involve Harrison Ford sitting at a computer – because all you really need today is an internet connection to make some astonishing discoveries. For the proof, look to the countless strange findings that folks have made using Google Earth.
In 2005, for instance, a group of researchers from London’s Kew Royal Botanical Gardens identified a previously undocumented mountain using Google Earth. Mozambique’s mysterious Mount Mabu stretches upwards 5,600 feet and houses what’s thought to be southern Africa’s biggest medium-altitude rainforest. And yet prior to this phenomenal discovery, scientists had been completely unaware of it.
In fact, Mount Mabu had stood largely untouched by people for potentially the entirety of humankind’s existence – its presence known only by locals. The peak, you see, was entirely hidden by savannah, which also cut it off from external ecological influence. And this placed it squarely in the sights of conservation biologist Julian Bayliss, who was using Google Earth to search for biodiverse locations in Africa that had yet to be discovered.
In 2008, then, a team of 28 researchers – led by plant expert Jonathan Timberlake – headed to Mount Mabu to explore the lost region. In a press release, Timberlake said, “The phenomenal diversity is just mind-boggling… Even today we cannot say we know all of the world’s key areas for biodiversity; there are still new ones to discover.”
All in all, the team collected over 500 specimens of plant life, and they made several new discoveries, too. These included Helixanthera schizocalyx, which is a tropical mistletoe, and new snake, butterfly and crab species. And perhaps none of this would have occurred without Bayliss firing up Google Earth.
But Bayliss’s spectacular discovery isn’t the only one that we can credit to Google Earth. Back in 2007, for example, Professor Lee Berger of Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University started using the satellite imaging program to identify the coordinates of 150 caves and fossil locations. But in doing so, he happened upon 500 previously unknown sites – and even a ground-breaking pair of skeletons.
You see, Professor Berger spotted some unexplored caves within South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind. The World Heritage site is a hotspot for hominin relics, with around 40 percent of the fossils of humanity’s ancestors originating there. And sure enough, two more partial skeletons were found in the new cave that Berger had scouted on Google Earth.
These aren’t just any old remains, though. Apparently, they date back to at least 1.78 million years ago and are the most complete example of hominid skeletons ever unearthed. According to Berger, they belong to a new species of hominid, Australopithecus sediba, which is the “most probable ancestor” of modern day humans. Now, that’s a potentially momentous scientific breakthrough – and all thanks to a software that anyone with an internet connection can access.
Meanwhile, Google Earth has proved an invaluable tool for researchers even when it hasn’t been the primary driver behind a discovery. In 2009, for example, after a pilot spotted an unusual shape in a riverbed in Wales, archaeologists used Google Earth to investigate. And by examining the satellite images, they identified a structure that had lain forgotten for potentially more than 1,000 years.
The peculiar V-shaped rock formation that the pilot had seen lies in an estuary of the River Teifi. And apparently, it’s entirely man-made. Thanks to Google Earth, experts identified the structure as a millennia-old fishing device. In 2009 Pembrokeshire College marine environment lecturer Dr. Ziggy Otto told The Telegraph, “Its age is unknown, but because of its now entirely sub-tidal position, this fish trap is very old, possibly dating back more than 1,000 years, when the sea level was lower.”
Apparently, you see, this ancient structure would trap fish in the estuary, leaving them behind when the tide went out for fisherman to then scoop up using nets. Remarkably, in the centuries since the device was built, it has naturally transformed into a reef, boosting the area’s biodiversity. And without Google Earth, it may never have been fully explored.
Some Google Earth discoveries, meanwhile, are less ground-breaking – but fascinating nonetheless. If you zoom in on Lake Taal in the Philippines, for instance, you’ll spot one of only two known examples of third-order islands in the world. In layman’s terms, that’s an island (Vulcan Point) on a lake (Crater Lake) on an island (Volcano Island) on a lake (Lake Taal) on another island (Luzon). Got it?
Interestingly, the only other known instance of this phenomenon was also discovered through satellite imagery. In 2012 Ken Jennings, who is a veteran winner of the game show Jeopardy!, found another – even bigger – example of a third-order island in Canada. You’ll have to set your Google Earth coordinates to 69.793° N, 108.241° W to see the unnamed island.
The fact that only a couple of these atolls have been discovered doesn’t mean that there aren’t more third-order islands out there, though. After all, there are around 2 million lakes across Canada alone, and many of these contain islands. If you’ve got some time to spare poring over Google Earth, then, you may just stumble across one of these phenomena for yourself.
While the significance of some Google Earth discoveries is clear, others seem to leave us with more questions than answers. Take Angela Micol’s 2012 find, for instance. In a satellite photograph of Egypt, she turned up a pair of strange anomalies, which she claimed were undiscovered pyramids. Unfortunately, though, the socioeconomic state of the country has prevented archaeologists from confirming the researcher’s hypothesis, according to Live Science.
Other supposed finds, meanwhile, have turned out to be completely unfounded. For example, an image from Google Ocean – an extension of Google Earth – allegedly revealed a grid-like shape on the sea floor. And in 2009 this led some to believe that the lost city of Atlantis had been uncovered. However, the explanation was ultimately much simpler.
Apparently, you see, the strange pattern, which seemed to stretch further than 100 miles, was merely a result of overlapping data sets from oceanographers. It’s said that the sonar method that’s used to map out the bottom of the sea frequently results in such anomalies. And in 2012 Google updated the map with a more accurate version, removing the grid – and any hopes of a long-lost underworld – in the process.
In fact, there are plenty of oddities on Google Earth that you can check out for yourself. If you head to the coordinates 33.396157° N, 44.486926° E, for instance, you’ll spot something strange among the terrain. That’s because the map reveals what appears to be a blood-red lake situated in Iran close to its border with Turkey. And for a while, the water’s mysterious color seemingly had no explanation.
However, it eventually transpired that Lake Urmia – at one time, one of the Middle East’s largest lakes – had shifted from its regular green tint sometime between April and July 2016. And the culprit was not a Biblical plague, but instead a type of bacteria. You see, the body of water’s high salt content made it ideal for Dunaliella algae, which becomes red in the right conditions.
Interestingly, this strange phenomenon is likely to occur more and more frequently in the future, according to National Geographic. That’s because the salinity increases as the lake reduces in size – whether due to the climate, lack of rainfall or human interference. And this higher salt content is apparently what provokes the bacteria to turn red, as it produces special pigments for protection.
Not every strange sight on Google Earth can be explained by a natural phenomenon, though. Some of them are – or were, at least – man-made. Indeed, billionaire Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan al Nahyan allegedly once had his name etched into the sands of Al Futaisi Island. And the enormous letters were even visible from space. By 2012, however, the letters had seemingly been removed without explanation.
Meanwhile, our discovery in Florida in August 2019 falls into a whole different camp of Google Earth finds. It’s certainly not an ancient structure nor a natural phenomena. But the story isn’t as trivial as the Sheikh’s beach branding, either. In fact, the tale is rather unsettling, and it started when the ex-husband of a Moon Bay Circle, Wellington, resident was checking out satellite images of his former neighborhood.
And it wasn’t long before the man in question spotted a mysterious shape in a body of water behind one of the houses. On closer inspection, the strange object seemed to resemble a car. So, the man allegedly texted his ex-partner, asking her to check it out. According to a statement from Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, this woman subsequently mentioned it to her neighbor, Barry Fay, who agreed that the images on Google Earth suggested that there really was a vehicle in the pond behind his home.
In September 2019 Fay told The Palm Beach Post that he’d subsequently checked outside to see if he could spot the vehicle from ground level – but to no avail. By this time, Fay had been living in the house for over a year, and he’d apparently never seen anything to suggest that a car was submerged in the water. Undeterred, however, he contacted another neighbor who owned a drone – and flew it over the pond.
Remarkably, the drone – which had a camera attached – revealed that there was indeed a car sitting in the murky waters. Fay contacted the local sheriff’s office right away, and the authorities subsequently arrived on the scene. The Florida resident told The Palm Beach Post, “They had my whole backyard roped off with crime-scene tape.”
When police lifted out the vehicle and examined it, they found that it had calcified, suggesting that it had been submerged for a long time. In fact, the car – a white Saturn SL – was 25 years old. But the most chilling part was still to come. Indeed, the contents of the Saturn would solve a 22-year-old cold case.
Next, authorities examined the vehicle’s interior. And that’s where they discovered what appeared to be human skeletal remains. Remarkably, a coroner confirmed that the corpse belonged to a man called William Moldt. According to the Sheriff’s Office, you see, the mortgage broker had ventured out to a nightclub in the winter of 1997 – and hadn’t been seen since.
Incredibly, then, his decades-old cold case was now almost coming to a close. And the discovery certainly came as a surprise to Fay. He told The Palm Beach Post that he’d presumed the vehicle was “just some junked-up old car” and that he’d never believed “there would be a 22-year-old dead body” inside. But in confirming its position behind his house, Fay had helped to provide police with a vital clue to solving this mystery.
According to the missing persons report filed back in 1997, Moldt – who was 40 years old at the time – had “gone to an Adult Night Club” on November 7. He had been seen consuming alcohol at the venue, but he hadn’t been described as a heavy drinker. And witnesses who had seen him leave had claimed that he hadn’t seemed drunk.
Then, at 9:30 p.m., Moldt had called his girlfriend to tell her that he “would be home soon,” according to the report. Apparently, he’d left the bar before midnight – and seemingly vanished. But unfortunately, there’s probably no way of knowing exactly what happened that night – or just how Moldt ended up with his car in the pond.
Authorities have speculated, however, that Moldt may have lost control of his car. And a Florida police spokesperson told The Telegraph in August 2019 that the long-missing mortgage broker – who had last been spotted wearing a shirt, tie and smart shoes – had simply gone “missing off the face of the Earth.”
According to reports, construction had been underway in the Wellington, FL, neighborhood at the time of Moldt’s disappearance. The work had apparently been part of the Grand Isles’ Sausalito housing development. Somehow, though, nobody had ever noticed the car – either in person or through Google Earth’s satellite imagery – until 2019.
And yet if you had zoomed in on the area in the 12 years before Fay’s neighbor’s ex-husband did so, you may just have spotted the car for yourself. Missing persons cold case website The Charley Project explained, “Amazingly, a vehicle had been plainly visible on a Google Earth satellite photo of the area since 2007, but apparently no one had noticed it.”
According to Science Alert, however, it may not have been as clear-cut as this: Google Earth constantly updates its images, you see. Apparently, the car wasn’t clearly visible in the satellite photographs until 2017. And before then, the images hosted on the platform were apparently too blurry to make out the vehicle definitively.
Incredibly, Moldt isn’t the only missing person to have been discovered using technology decades on from their disappearance. The remains of a Canadian woman, who hadn’t been seen since 1992, for instance, were also found in this way in August 2019. This body, too, was found submerged in a car. But this time, Google Earth wasn’t involved: instead, a teenage boy did some detective work with his GoPro.
Max Werekna was on vacation with his family near Griffin Lake in British Columbia, Canada, when he alerted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to what he thought was a car underwater. The authorities investigated the wreck and uncovered the body of Janet Farris – a 69-year-old woman who had gone missing on the way to a wedding 27 years earlier. Police believe she may have driven into the lake to avoid hitting an animal.
It’s heartbreaking to think that people like Moldt and Farris could have gone undiscovered for so long with no closure for their friends and family. And yet it also makes you wonder just what else could be out there, waiting to be discovered on Google Earth. After all, Moldt’s car was arguably in plain sight for years only to be stumbled on by chance. Who knows what other mysteries could be unraveled with a few clicks of your mouse?